An Interview with Michelle Kaufman
“We feel guilt male sportswriters don’t feel.”
“When you push the button to send on time and you know you pounded it out in the last fifteen minutes, that’s a huge rush, like scoring a touchdown. It’s the most challenging and amazing fifteen minutes of sportswriting.”
Michelle Kaufman: Interviewed on August 22, 2006.
Position: reporter, Miami Herald (tennis, Olympics, soccer)
Born: 1965, Frederick, Md.
Education: University of Miami, 1987 (Journalism, English)
Career: St. Petersburg Times 1987-90, Detroit Free Press 1990-96, Miami Herald 1996 –
Personal: Married, one daughter
Favorite Sports Movies: Rocky, Bull Durham, A League of Their Own
Hobbies: traveling, reading
Michelle Kaufman excerpted from the Miami Herald, July 8, 2006:
MUNICH, Germany — Deutsch-land! Deutsch-land! Over and over and over again. Everywhere you turn at this World Cup, German fans are chanting, fists pumping skyward, a passionate display of patriotism locals say they always avoided because of collective shame about “the war.”
Back at the start of the tournament, those chants were a bit jolting for a Jewish sportswriter who had mixed feelings about being here in the first place.
But that was before spending three weeks in the midst of warm, friendly German people, before the long discussion with a German journalist on an overnight train from Dortmund to Munich, before the visit to Dachau.
The first tears leaked out while I stood on the train platform at Laim, waiting for the S2 to Dachau. A nice elderly woman saw that I looked lost, and asked, “You are going to Dachau?” I nodded and pulled on my sunglasses to hide my eyes. She pointed to the platform and smiled.
D-A-C-H-A-U. That name, so familiar from history books and films about the Holocaust, looked creepy on a train station departure board. Was anybody else on the platform feeling uneasy? Were any other Jews overwhelmed with emotion at the sight of the train arriving? It didn’t seem that way.
Q. Why did you write the Dachau story?
A. I did it mainly because from the minute I saw the World Cup was in Germany I had personal feelings. As a Jewish person I was apprehensive about going. I always have avoided Germany – it’s never a place I wanted to go. I was curious about it but it was never a place I wanted to go and spend money and feel I could be comfortable there. I had a similar experience in 1991 covering the Pan Am Games in Cuba. My family went from Eastern Europe to Cuba – my parents were born in Cuba – it was a forbidden place with a personal history. The Holocaust always fascinated me and I thought I would go to explore the Holocaust museum and concentration camp and to get answers to some of my personal questions. So when I went it turned out to be an amazing experience for me, something I’ll never forget. It didn’t have anything to do with soccer but in a way it did. One of the main stories was the intense nationalism the Germans were showing – wearing the colors and waving the flag and chanting “Deutschland” – this was unheard of since World War 2. Everybody I talked to would say it’s not usually like this. Germans have been ashamed for a long time and this was a breaking free to feel pride in their German heritage. I felt their history and the Holocaust was very relevant. Just to write about the history of Germans would not be a story if you didn’t also explain why it’s relevant. They ran it on 1-A. One of my editors was concerned – a lot had been written about the Holocaust and a Jewish person going to a camp was not anything new. I said “Let me try, in the context of the World Cup it’s different.”
I got a huge response. There were many letters to the editor, and I got about 200-300 e-mails. The first e-mail was from a lieutenant in Iraq, a Latin guy who read it on miamiherald.com. He said he got goosebumps. I got e-mails from Holocaust survivors and German-Americans and from India and Ecuador. The point was I went with trepidations and left Germany with a much warmer feeling about the people and the country. I allowed myself to enjoy Germany. They’re not hiding from the past. I was reassured that the modern generation of Germans was well aware of the war and not trying to hide it. German-Americans thanked me. They said, “It’s hard to be a German when people only think of Hitler.”
Q. Was that sports journalism or journalism?
A. That was just journalism. It had a sports angle to it because it was happening during World Cup. Sports journalism is really just journalism. Even if you go to a game, you look for the story – the main character, conflict, and you’re trying to get truth, but tell a story, and be accurate. You do all the things that go into covering a city council meeting, the same exact tools, same as covering a fire, crime, or a political convention. People underestimate sportswriters – they think we can only write sports. Most sportswriters have been thrown into a big news event at least once in their career. I covered the riots in Liberty City (Miami) when I was covering the 89 Super Bowl. I went from a football press conference to where the police were and stood there with the police reporters. For a few days I was writing about how the riots were affecting the Super Bowl.
Most of the time I find when sportswriters are thrown into other journalism we do perfectly fine. We’re used to writing on deadline. City side reporters have longer to write. We joke about election night – city reporters wear sweats to work and order in pizza because it’s a long night. The sports department does that every night of the year and we don’t come in sweats and order pizza. Sportswriters are used to working under the gun in chaotic conditions, sitting in a stadium with 80,000 screaming people, or in Cameron Arena with somebody’s knees poking you in the back. City side editors and reporters are shocked and amazed when we do well in a news situation, but we’re used to chaos. It’s great training for any kind of journalism.
Q. How far away from action on the field should sports journalism go?
A. Especially with the internet, and how quickly people can get results, sports journalism has to reinvent itself and rethink what it’s doing. The way we write game stories has to change, to be more about analysis. We need more storytelling columns and local stories. The one thing the Miami Herald can do that espn.com can’t is provide coverage of local college teams and high school teams. That’s the way we have to go. The average fan can get the results from espn.com when they wake up. The newspaper should provide something deeper and farther away from the action on the field, whether a really good profile on an athlete, or examining the context or history of an event. Every story I do I try to give the readers something they couldn’t get on their own. Even with a game story it’s the quotes and the context. At Passover Seder we ask why this night is different from all other nights. I do the same with every game – why is it different from all other games? It could be a player, a coach, or something happening in the stands. That’s what I try to teach my students.
Q. You teach sportswriting?
A. At University of Miami. One of the things I try to do is get my students real experience. We critique a lot of writing. I bring in game stories by writers – why did it work, why not, what was this writer thinking when writing the story, which approach was more effective. We discuss all the issues but the main thing is to give them professional experience. I got three-day credentials for 19 students at the NASDAQ tennis tournament. They filed live on deadline. Features, notebooks, live reports. I had them cover basketball games and file live stories by midnight. If I just tell them about deadline it’s hard for them to picture without actually doing it. The first game I had them file by 1 a.m. The second by midnight. The third just 40 minutes after the game. The last one was right on the gun. To me the deadline is the hardest part of sportswriting. A tie game 20 minutes from deadline – you don’t know who’s going to win – you have two different story lines – that’s the biggest challenge. You’re looking at your watch, the screen, and freaking out. You have 15 inches to write in 15 minutes. That’s when the adrenaline kicks in. That fires me up. It’s the scariest part but the most rewarding part. When you push the button to send on time and you know you pounded it out in the last 15 minutes, that’s a huge rush, like scoring a touchdown. It’s the most challenging and amazing fifteen minutes of sportswriting.
Some can write on deadline, some can’t. I had one student who was a very good writer but couldn’t write on deadline. I told him maybe he should do something else in journalism. When I was U-M, stringing for St. Pete, I was covering a baseball game, and I labored over a lead and when the deadline came I hadn’t written anything else and I wasn’t ready to send. I called the copy editor and asked for 15 minutes more and he said “No, we’re not taking your story.” I cried. He said he’d rather I turn in shit on time than a Pulitzer Prize winner late. That was my first valuable lesson in J-School.
Q. Columnists you admire?
A. There are so many good writers in our field. I like George Vecsey and Selena Roberts (NY Times). Sally Jenkins. Joe Posnanski (KC Star). Bill Plaschke (LA Times). Jason Whitlock (KC Star), who is controversial, but I like a columnist who has something to say. I like the Herald columnists – Greg Cote, Dan LeBatard, Linda Robertson, Ed Pope. Bruce Jenkins (SF Chronicle). Mike Wilbon (Washington Post). Every morning I go on sportspages.com and try to read as many as I can. I love to read the British writers. Sue Mott in London, Simon Barnes. I love the way the British write. They’re so lyrical, and they don’t rely so much on quotes, it’s more like a theater or dance review. I’m always humbled when I read them. When I’m writing overseas I’m always inspired – I try to let my hair down a bit more than normal.
Q. Beat reporters you admire?
A. I don’t follow that many beat reporters outside of South Florida. I don’t know who is kicking butt on the Redskins or in New York. You know that in your own market. If you’re the NFL or NBA writer you know who’s breaking stories on their own teams and all the day-to-day stuff. Some of those people don’t win APSE awards but are terrific. When I covered the Bucs in St. Pete, so much depended on making contacts, having agents in your pocket. Beat reporters do well if they know everybody, have all the cell numbers, and if somebody gets arrested at midnight they can reach the right people.
In our market of course it’s our writers. Jason Cole, our NFL writer, just left for yahoo.com. He had every number and broke a lot of stories. Dan LeBatard, when he did beat reporting on the Marlins, got players to tell him things they wouldn’t tell others. There was a question about whether he was too close but nonetheless he broke a lot of stories.
Q. Why aren’t there more women in sportswriting?
A. Good question. I’m friends with lot of women in business – Linda Robertson (Miami Herald), Missy Isaacson (Chicago Tribune), Diane Pucin (LA Times), we have a sorority and we talk about this. One reason is it’s still a male-dominated field, and women don’t feel like they would be welcome. It’s still kind of weird and odd to be woman sportswriter even though I’ve done it for 20 years. People still ask how I got in, which you wouldn’t ask a male. Maybe it’s because there aren’t aren’t as many women as men who are sports fanatics. But 40 percnet of high school and college athletes are girls, so ask yourself if almost half the people participating are women why such a small number of women in the business. The total is 400 to 450 out of 1600 papers. That’s one for every four papers. The number of female columnists and sports editors is under 20. Tiny numbers. I feel it at a World Cup or ACC basketball tournament, where there are 300 reporters and 6 women. You feel very outnumbered.
When I covered the Bucs for St. Pete, there were five beat reporters, four guys and me. And on the road they want to go to a strip club. Or at the bar they’re ogling women – you feel like you’re invading a bachelor party. You never fully belong. That’s why women gravitate toward sports like Olympics and tennis – there are more women in those sports. You feel a little more comfortable. It’s a little more uncomfortable being a baseball or football writers – every single place you go you’re the only woman, and you stick out, and it’s not so pleasant sometimes. And we say to ourselves, why do we do this? Are we crazy?
Q. What chance do women have for advancement?
A. A good chance. It’s not that sports editors are against women. Linda Robertson, Sally Jenkins (Washington Post), Diane Pucin and others have not been held back, they’ve gone on to have columns and have a voice in business.
One thing that holds women back is it’s hard to have a family. My daughter is six. My husband (Dave Barry) is a journalist and he understands. When I go away to Germany for three weeks he takes care of her and gets her to school. Women have to think about family issues. If you feel it’s not conducive to family life you might do something else. Some start in sportswriting in their 20s but when they realize they’re not meeting men and the clock is ticking they switch over to features or the business desk or whatever.
We feel guilt male sportswriters don’t feel. I spent six weeks in Europe this year away from my family and I know my feelings were different than the guys. They miss their family but they don’t have the intense guilt. Me and Linda and Ann Killion (San Jose Mercury News), much of what we talked about was how to balance motherhood in this business. It’s very difficult. There’s no way to be a baseball writer and cover 162 games – 82 on the road. We’ve tried to figure out how many mothers are in the business – it’s 20 to 25. Linda Robertson has three kids. Susan Miller Degnan (Miami Herald) has three kids. The Miami Herald has five women sportswriters, which leads the nation. Three of us are moms. All of us went to Torino. Before you leave you have to leave lists of things that have to be done, all the minutiae, like ballet and soccer practice. And you have to have a husband who is flexible enough to handle it.
Q. Do women sportswriters encounter bias?
A. I remember an editor asking me if I could write a column ripping a coach. I said I don’t think I could, but that I would go point by point critiquing the job the coach has done. I have a certain respect for a coach, presuming he knows more about sports than I do, that’s his profession, and he spends days thinking about it, breaking down film. Yes, we know more than the average fan but not as much as the athletes and coaches. I can be critical of a specific thing an athlete or coach does, or if a team isn’t responding to a coach’s message I can write that, but a lot of guys write things that are way out critical, very critical, and it’s harder for a woman to do that. Not to stereotype all women. Sally Jenkins is very opinionated. But she always backs it up. That’s what I do, point by point, and acknowledge the opposite point of view. It would be nice to have more women expressing opinions in our field.
You still get nasty letters contesting your very existence in this field, and when you get a job you not only have to prove you can write, which males do, but you have to prove you know the subject matter. If I ask Nick Saban a question, he probably thinks a 20-year-old male writer knows more about football than I know at 41. That’s aggravating to women. You constantly have to prove you know the subject matter you’re writing about. If you do make a mistake it’s magnified, and the guys on the desk will snicker about it. Women in this business are very careful reporters and we check and re-check and if we make a mistake it’s not viewed as an oversight – it’s viewed as some lack of knowledge of sports.
Women in the business who are my age, all in our 40s, are asking ourselves are we going to be old lady sportswriters? There never have been. There have been old guys, gray-haired guys. But there haven’t been old women. We ask ourselves if we are going to be 70 with wrinkles interviewing a 20-year-old kid. Or are we going to get out of the business in the next 10 years. It’s a discussion we all have. How do we stay interested? We have kids, we ask is this dumb going to cover a game, interviewing kids who could be our children, waiting for an hour to be blown off by a 19-year-old punk. Why are we doing this?
Q. What keeps you going?
A. In the end I love it. I love the drama of sports, writing about it. I’ll probably stay in until I find something I like better. I have no desire to switch to news or editing because I like the writing process.
(SMG thanks Michelle Kaufman for her cooperation)